Anyone who’s seen Bruce Springsteen in concert will know precisely what to expect from his new memoir, “Born to Run.’’ The book, seven years in the making, is ambitious, earnest, lyric, rollicking, loud, and long — 510 pages in all, not counting photos.
That’s not a criticism, mind you. As he turns 67 (his birthday is Sept. 23), Springsteen ranks second only to Dylan on our Mount Rushmore of rock, a diamond-hard troubadour who distills the yearnings and dashed dreams of working-class Americans into stadium-shaking anthems.
Does this hotly anticipated tome peel back the sweaty mythos in which the Boss has always been shrouded and reveal the thoughtful young man who rose from the gritty boardwalks of the Jersey shore to the empyrean heights of superstardom?
In a word: Yes, though what emerges is not a joyride of Dionysian excess but a portrait of the young artist as a single-minded pragmatist.
The journey begins in his hard-scrabble hometown of Freehold, N.J., where Springsteen, as the first grandchild, grew up amid a garish cast of Irish and Italian relatives who essentially all lived in the same neighborhood. “Due to order of birth and circumstance,” he writes, “I was lord, king and the messiah all rolled into one.” It was a feeling he would seek to rekindle for the rest of his life.
Along with his parents, Springsteen spent his early years living with his father’s family. There, his grandfather, a radio repairman, brought the siren call of the airwaves into his grandson’s life, “the sound of the world outside straining to reach us.”
Young Bruce absorbs influences wherever he can find them, including the Catholic Church next door. “This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self.” By age 7, he has deemed himself an “outcast weirdo misfit sissy boy.”
Looming largest of all are his vivacious Italian-American mother and his hard-drinking, troubled Dutch-Irish father, who at one point returns from a bar and verbally abuses his wife. A terrified Springsteen (age 9) creeps from his bedroom and whacks his old man between the shoulder blades with a baseball bat.
It’s a telling scene. Despite his sensitivity, Springsteen harbors what he aptly describes as “ravenous ambitions,” not just for fame but for the ultimate prize — self-determination. Before long, he has taught himself guitar (purchased from a Western Auto store for $18), ditched any dreams of college, formed and fronted various bands, and become a fixture in the taverns of Asbury Park. There’s a compulsive charge to this part of the tale, as Springsteen scrapes out a living amid the wild, the innocent, and the criminal.
At one point, on the brink of homelessness, he drives to Manhattan to pick up $35 from his manager. He only has pennies to pay the $1 toll at the Holland Tunnel, and the attendant insists on counting. One is Canadian. Bruce Springsteen, future Rock God, does what he must: He roots around his battered Pontiac and finds the final cent between two rear-seat cushions.
Springsteen quickly recognizes that his voice and guitar playing are not going to get him out of the beach bars. “The songs would have to be fireworks,” he observes.
Alas, his relentless drive leaves him with little time for hijinks. He’s more control freak than party animal, his drug of choice being the ecstatic communion he establishes with his band mates (as their benevolent dictator) and an adoring audience.
This is not to suggest that Springsteen is without a comic sensibility. He’s particularly adept at puncturing the pretensions of his various rock personas, including the “iconic bandana and pumped muscles” of his Born in the USA days. “Looking back on those photos now, I look simply . . . gay.”
If there’s a design flaw in “Born to Run’’ it has to do with the inherent arc of the celebrity memoir. It’s simply not as bracing to read in the final third of the book about Springsteen’s later years, the cosseted life of fame in which he jams with the Stones and sups with the Sinatras.
Nor is he especially adept at describing his creative process. “I went to the beach and wrote ‘Spirit in the Night,’ came home, busted out my rhyming dictionary and wrote ‘Blinded by the Light.’ ”
Those who come to “Born to Run’’ eager for salacious details will find few. For instance, his first marriage, in 1985, to actress Julianne Phillips, who was 11 years his junior, merits just a few pages. The only real revelation is that Springsteen has suffered severe bouts of depression and taken medication for the past 15 years. He has even dealt with erectile dysfunction. (Gasp!) None of this ranks as a shock given his father’s persistent mental illness.
Where Springsteen soars — both as musician and writer — is in his ability to bear witness, not only to his own inner life but to the lives of those left behind in the post-industrial wastelands of this nation. Springsteen made it out of Freehold, but he never turned away from the “grinding hypnotic power” of the place and its people.
“Born to Run’’ documents the unlikely rise of a rocker hellbent not on escape, but on reckoning with the moral failings of the world he was born into.
“Dread — the sense that things might not work out, that the moral high ground had been swept out from underneath us, that the dream we had of ourselves had somehow been tainted and the future would be forever uninsured — was in the air,” he observes. “This was the new lay of the land, and if I was going to put my characters out on that highway, I was going to have to put all these things in the car with them.”
Never has a boy prophet written words more timely.
BORN TO RUN
By Bruce Springsteen. Simon & Schuster, 510 pp., illustrated, $32.50
Steve Almond is the author of several books, including “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life: A Book by and for the Fanatics Among Us.’’